Research Findings on Use of Lemon Balm for Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Recent research studies suggest that lemon balm may help improve cognitive function and decrease agitation in people diagnosed with various dementia conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. Common symptoms of dementia, especially in the later stages, include agitation, aggression, shouting, depression, delusions, pacing, wandering, sleep disturbances and hallucinations. Drugs sometimes help to manage the condition but often with unpleasant — or even dangerous — side effects. In contrast lemon balm has shown sedative and anti-anxiety effects without bad effects in studies of healthy people. Though preliminary, several recent studies of lemon balm treatments show improvement, too, among patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
An alternate approach that shows promise is aromatherapy. With this technique a patient receives the active agent in either of two ways:
2.) skin application through massage with aromatic oils
One problem with aromatherapy research, though, is that it can be difficult to distinguish whether benefits obtained this way are the result of actual biological activity of the agent in question or, instead, by the pleasure of the experience. Researchers can design placebo-controlled trials, but even then foolproof double-blinding is difficult to achieve. For this reason a totally objective, valid conclusion can be challenging.
In one recent study conducted in England, 72 severely demented patients with clinically significant agitation were treated by aromatherapy. The agent was essential oil of lemon balm in a base lotion, massaged into the skin (face and arms) twice daily for four weeks. Compared with a placebo (sunflower oil) group, the lemon balm treatment patients exhibited markedly less agitation. They were also less socially withdrawn and they engaged in more constructive activities according to researchers there.
Lemon balm contains a number of volatile essential oils, including citronellal and citral A and B. Many of these oils have sedative properties. In both animal and human studies the herb, taken by mouth, produces calming effects. In larger doses it may also promote sleep.
Based on the positive effect in mice, human trials are now underway. In a four-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 42 people with Alzheimer’s disease, use of an oral lemon balm extract significantly decreased their tendency to become agitated and improved their cognitive function.
A new study from the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran also seems to support the therapeutic potential of lemon balm. Researchers there tested 42 elderly men and women, aged 65 to 80 years, with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Those subjects participated in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial of four months’ duration. The therapeutic agent was 60 drops per day of lemon balm in the form of an alcoholic extract. Preliminary results were encouraging. After 16 weeks of treatment with lemon balm, the test patients showed significant benefits in cognition as measured by two batteries of tests. The researchers found improvement in functions such as attention, language, memory, orientation, judgment and reasoning. There was also a significant reduction in agitation among the test subjects.
Meanwhile Dr. David Kennedy, a researcher at Northumbria University, says of his part in a study there: “As a sedative, the lemon balm extract worked. The more [they] took, the more it worked. But it was only the dried leaf, which is probably closest to the traditional way of taking lemon balm, that enhanced memory. We believe that it could be used as an helpful adjunct to conventional treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.”
In one study in England, researchers found that applying lemon balm oil to the faces and arms of patients with severe dementia reduced their agitation by 35 percent.
In another study lemon balm essential oil applied to the skin in the form of a cream also reduced agitation in 71 people with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers in this U. K. study originally considered the experimental treatment to be a form of aromatherapy; however, one of the first faculties to diminish in Alzheimer’s disease is the sense of smell. Other professionals, therefore, conclude that it is more likely that absorption through the skin accounts for the improvement.
Why Does It Work?
Recent studies indicate that lemon balm stimulates the brain’s acetylcholine receptors. Acetylcholine (ACh) is the principal neurotransmitter for cognitive functions in brain activity. Deficits in ACh levels and activity are probably primary neurological factors in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. British researchers recently evaluated lemon balm’s stimulation of ACh receptors as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The herb is already well known to function as a mild sedative. This study evaluated its benefit in helping to alleviate the nervous agitation often associated with severe dementia. As a bonus, the researchers noted that antioxidant properties of lemon balm may also provide some protection against free radical damage, a known causative factor in Alzheimer’s disease. The British authors concluded their report of findings by stating:
On the broader question of a possible medicinal role for M. officinalis, it is notable that the results evinced here support the suggestion that M. officinalis may eventually have a role to play in the treatment of dementia.
Another study noted that lemon balm suppresses acetylcholinesterase, the brain chemical that breaks down ACh. This action may help stimulate and support memory and mood.
In one Chinese study eugenol, a powerful antioxidant found in lemon balm, and acupuncture helped test subjects recover memory-related functions.
Another series of experiments at Northumbria University published for the British Psychological Society’s annual conference highlights work of Dr. Elaine Perry. Researchers at Medical Research Council’s unit at Newcastle General Hospital in England conducted this lemon balm study. On autopsy Dr. Perry found a positive effect on pieces of brain tissue and chemical receptors of Alzheimer’s patients.
For mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: 60 drops per day of a standardized lemon balm extract, prepared 1:1 in 45% alcohol.
There is still more work to be done before definitive proof is established. Preliminary research, though, suggests a therapeutic role for lemon balm in treating symptoms of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or others in the dementia category.